The Archery Library
Old Archery Books, Articles and Prints
Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VII: Societies of Modern Archers
Section VII
Societies of Modern Archers
Part 6 of 6

Strong, indeed! Five hundred fathoms are one thousand yards; between twice and thrice the greatest range possessed by those strong war bows used at Cressy and Agincourt; tradition, therefore, has erred in assigning to these objects the honour of being the ancient bow-butts of Perth. But whatever was their extent, the Scottish archers made very good use of them, and occasionally proved successful rivals of their southern neighbours, as the following anecdote from old Pitscottie will show:--

"In this year there came an ambassador out of England, named Lord William Howard, and a bishop with him, with many other gentlemen, to the number of three score horse, which were all the able men and waled men for all kind of games and pastimes, shooting, loupin, running, wrestling, and casting of the stone; but they were well sayed ere they past out of Scotland, and that by their own provocation: but ever they tint: till at last, the Queen of Scotland, the King's mother, favoured the Englishmen, because she was the King of England's sister: and therefore she took an enterprise of archery upon the Englishmen's hands, contrary to her son the King, and any six in Scotland that he would wale (pick), either gentlemen or yeomen, that the Englishmen should shoot against them, either at pricks, revere, or butts, as the Scots pleased. The King hearing this of his mother, was content, and gart her pawn a hundred crowns, and a tun of wine, upon the Englishmen's hands; and he incontinent laid down as much for the Scottish men. The field and ground were chosen in St. Andrew's, and three landed men and three yeomen chosen to shoot against the Englishmen; to wit, David Wemyss of that ilk, David Arnot of that ilk, and Mr. John Wedderburn, vicar of Dundee; the yeomen, John Thompson, in Leith, Steven Taburnea, with a piper called Alexander Bailie. They shot very near, and worsted the Englishmen of the enterprise, and wan the hundred crowns and the tun of wine, which made the King very merry that his men wan the victory."

So late as the reign of William III., the grenadiers of Highland regiments carried bows and arrows when recruiting. Their bow was shorter than that used by the ancient English and modern Scotch archers; the arrow heads were barbed, and unusually long. Specimens of both are preserved in the armory at Abbotsford, the well-known residence of the late Sir Walter Scott.

One very singular circumstance connected with the history of Scotch archery is mentioned in Home's "History of the Rebellion." He tells us a clergyman performed divine service during the civil wars with a long bow in his hand, and a sheaf of arrows tucked into a silken sash, fastened round his waist! Every Sabbath did he march to the church, himself carrying the good weapon, while his servant came after with his case of arrows, and a claymore in a black silk belt. Peace be to thy ashes ! simple, single hearted old soldier of the church militant! for the shafts of a stronger archer has laid thee prostrate in the grave this many a long year. No doubt, you considered that to be truly genuine, practical piety, which thus armed you, "PRO ARIS ET FOCIS," and prompted the brandishing of your carnal weapon in the pulpit. Out of it, there is good reason to suspect you could handle your tackle "righte yeomanlike." No one would be likely to select such weapons, unless confident of ability to use them to some purpose.

And now, having pretty well exhausted my knowledge of Lowland archery, with the reader's permission we change tine: scene, and, in imagination, transport ourselves to the lonely shores of some Highland lake, where, amid congenial scenery, we'll listen while a plaided shepherd, in language simple and homely as his garb, tells his tale of the renowned Scottish archer Calum Dhu.

No braver warrior than Calum Dhu followed the banners of the chief of Colquhoun; and with them, the powerful M'Gregors were at inveterate feud. His cottage stood at the base of a steep fenny hill, within a sequestered glen, that lay beneath the lofty Ben Lomond. Thus retired from the rest of the clan, he nourished deadly hatred towards the M'Gregors, and was ever foremost in danger when they joined in red unyielding battle. For skilful archery, Calum Dhu never knew a rival; in wielding the claymore too, he had few equals; but the bow was the weapon of his heart.

The son of the chief of the M`Gregors, with two of his clansmen, were at the chase. Their game being wide, they wandered far, and found themselves, a little after mid-day, on the hill top, just above Calum Dhu's cottage.

"Come," said the young chief, "let us go down, and try the strength of Calum Dhu's bow, which men say none but he can bend. You and I, Evan, are reputed the best archers of our clan, and it will go hard with us if we cannot show him that the M'Gregors have thews and sinews equal to the task. Hast thou forgotten how often he has stained his arrows with the heart's blood of our bravest warriors, piercing them through and through, as if they had been straw butts set up for holiday sport? On, I say! he knows us not. Should he, we are three to one, and I owe him somewhat," he continued, with eye of fire, and voice quivering from subdued passion, "since our last affray, when he drove an arrow through my uncle's gallant bosom. Follow then!"

The will of a Highland chieftain was ever law to his clansmen.

"We will go down, if a score of his best claymores were with him," cried Evan fiercely.

"Nay, be not rash; we'll first bend and break his bow," replied the chief;" and then, then for my uncle's blood."

"They say he is good at the sword," remarked the third M'Gregor, who had hitherto been silent; "but this," drawing his dirk, "shall stretch him on the sward."

"Strike not behind," rejoined his lord; "hew him down in front; he deserves honourable wounds, for he is brave, though an enemy."

A rising knoll had hitherto concealed the cottage, which they now reached, knocking loudly at the door, after some delay, a little, thick-set, gray-eyed, oldish looking man came forth. Threads and thrums hung from his black bushy head, as if he had been employed in weaving the coarse linen of the country and the time. Though the most incurious observer could not have failed to remark the disproportionate length of his arms in comparison with his stature, in all other respects, the man before them had none of the muscular symptoms of prodigious strength, which Calum Dhu was reported to possess, and which had often proved so fatal to the M'Gregor clan. To a querulous demand of what they might want, uttered in the impatient tone of one interrupted in some engrossing worldly employment, they replied, by inquiring if Calum Dhu was at home?

"Na, na, he 's gone to the fishing. But an ye ha ony message for our chief (Heaven guard him), about the coming of the red M'Gregors, and will trust me with it, Calum will get it free me. Ye may as well tell me as him. He stays long when he gaes out' for he's a keen fisher."

"We were only wanting to try the bending of his bow, which report says no man can do, save himself."

"Hoo gin that's all, ye might have tell'd it at first, and no keepit me sa fang free my loom. But stop."--Thus saying, the old fellow paused, and gave his shoulders an impatient shrug, as it appeared to his visitants; to a keen observer, however, the action might have expressed satisfaction, triumph and determination. Then, re-entering the house, he quickly brought out a sheaf of arrows, and a bow of the dark red yew, so tall and stout, that the young men were persuaded the Colquhoun chieftain was quite another sort of person from the dwarfish being with whom they were then conversing. He threw the arrows carelessly on the ground, and said, "Ye will be trying your strength at a flight? Like a glance of lightning, I hae seen Callum send a shaft over the highest point of that hill; and once, when the M'Gregors came raging up the glen, like red deevils as they are, mony of their best warriors fell at the farthest entry o' the pass, every man o' them wi' a hole in his breast, and its fellow at his back."

Whilst thus speaking, he had taken the longest arrow out of the sheaf, and stood playing it in his hand, seemingly ready to give it to the first of his visiters who should bend the bow. The three M'Gregors were tall, muscular, and in the prime of manhood. The young chief first took up the bow, and, after examining its unbending strength, laid all his might into it. He strained till the blood rushed to his face, and his temples throbbed almost to bursting, but in vain; the string remained slack as at first. E van and his associate were alike unsuccessful; as well might they have striven to root up the gnarled oak of their native mountains.

"There's not a man," exclaimed the chief of the M'Gregors, chagrined at the absence of the man he sought, and his own and his clansmen's vain efforts--"there 's not a man in your clan can bend that bow; and if Calum Dhu were here, he should not long--"Biting his lip, he suppressed the rest of the sentence, for the third M'Gregor gave him a glance of caution.

"Ha!" said the old man, still playing with the long arrow, without seeming to observe the latter part of this speech; "if Calum was here, he would bend it as easily as ye wad bend that rush; and gin ony of the M'Gregors were in sight, he wad drive this fang arrow through them as easily as ye wad drive your dirk through my old plaid. More, I say; the feather wad come out at the other side, wet with their hearts' bluid; and sometimes even the man behind is wounded, if they are any way thick in their battle. I once saw a pair of them stretched on the heather, pinned together with one of Calum's yard-long shafts."

This was spoken with the apparent simplicity and composure of one talking to friends, and careless of foes. Still, closer attention would have discerned a chequered shade of pleasure and triumph cross his countenance as M`Gregor's lip quivered, and the scowl of anger descended upon his brow, at the tale of his kinsmen's destruction by the aim of their direst foe.

"He must be a brave warrior," at length observed the young chief, compressing his breath, and looking with anger and as. tonishment at the cool tenacious old man. "I should like to see this Callum Dhu."

"Ye may, soon enough; and, gin ye were a M'Gregor, feel him too. But why is the man glunching and gloaming thus? Gin ye were Black John himsel, ye could na look mair deevilish like. And what are ye fidging at, man?" he continued, addressing the third M'Gregor, who had marked the anger of his lord, and gradually moved nearer the old tormentor, with his right hand below the left breast of his plaid, probably grasping his dirk, ready for the signal of vengeance. The faith of the Gael is deeper than, "to hear is to obey," the slavish obedience of the East; his, is to anticipate and perform. To know and to accomplish, or to die, is the stern devotedness of the North.

The old man kept his keen grey eye fixed upon him, whilst he continued in the same unsuspecting tone. "But is there ony word of the M'Gregors coming over the hills? Calum wad like to try a shot at Black John, their chief; he wonders could he pass an arrow through his great hardy bulk, as readily as he sends them through his clansmen's silly bodies. John has a son, too, he wad like to try his craft on, who has the name of a brave warrior. I forget his name. Calum likes to strike at noble deer, though he is forced sometimes to kill that which is little worth. But I 'm fearful he o'er-rates his own strength. I think his arrow would only stick weel in Black John; but--"

"Dotard, peace I " roared the M'Gregor till the glen reechoed with his voice; his brow darkening like midnight. "Peace I or I 'll cut that sacrilegious tongue out of your head, and, nailing it to yon door, shew Calum Dhu you have had visiters in his absence, and make him bless his stars he saw them not."

A dark flash of suspicion crossed his mind, as he gazed at the individual he was addressing, who quailed not at his frowns. But it vanished as the imperturbable old man resumed his discourse.

"Ha, oh! ye are no a M'Gregor; and tho' ye were, ye surely wadna mind the like of me! But anent bending this bow," striking it with the long arrow which he still held in his hand, "there's just a knack in it; and your young, untaught strength is useless, as ye dinna ken the gait o't. I learned it free Calum, but I'm sworn never to tell it to a stranger, and there is mony a man in the clan I ken naething about. But as ye seem anxious to see this bow bent, I'll no disappoint ye. Rin up to yon grey stone--stand there; it will no be as if ye were near me when I'm doing it, but it will be just the same to you, for ye can see weel enough. When the string is on the bow, ye may come down, an ye like it, and try a flight. It's a capital bow, and that ye'll fin."

A promise is sacred with the Gael. As the Colquhoun was under one, they did not insist on his exhibiting his art while they were by; nevertheless' curious to see the sturdy bow bent-- a feat of which the best warrior of their clan would have been proud--and perhaps thinking Calum Dhu would arrive in the interval, they walked away in the direction pointed out. Unsuspicious of treachery, as the old man appeared ignorant of their names, and could not be supposed capable of sending an arrow so far, the M'Gregors thought not of looking back, until close to the grey rock. Then turning round, they saw him suddenly bend the stubborn yew, and fix an arrow upon the string. In an instant he drew strongly to his very ear, and the feathered shaft of a cloth yard length was fiercely launched in air.

"Mac Alp--hooch !" exclaimed the dying youth' instinctively endeavouring to raise the M`Gregor war cry, and clapping his hand on his breast as he fell.

"Ha!" cried Calum Dhu, for it was he himself, "clap your hand behin; the arm shot, which never sent arrow that came out where it went in,"--a rhyme he used in battle, when his foes fell fast as he could nock arrows upon the bowstring.

The first impulse of two remaining M'Gregors, was to rush down and cut to atoms the slayer of their beloved young chief; but seeing him fix another arrow to that bow, the terrible powers of which they had just witnessed, and fearing they might be prevented from carrying to the old chieftain the news of his son's death, they started over the hill like roes. Still, flight availed not; a speedy messenger was after them, for a second arrow sent by the same powerful and unerring arm transfixed Evan's shoulder, just as he descended out of sight. To catch him, it must have grazed the bent that grew on the hill top, as nought but his shoulder could be seen from where Calum Dhu stood.

On flew the other M'Gregor, with little abatement of speed, till he reached his chieftain with the bloody tidings of his son's death.

"Raise the clan ! dearly shall they rue it," burst from the lips of Black John; and a party, breathing all the vengeance of mountain warriors, were soon far on the way of fierce retaliation. Calum Dhu in the meantime had not remained inactive. Knowing, from the escape of one of his three foes, a battle must quickly ensue, he collected as many clansmen as he could, and with his terrible bow, calmly awaited the onset. The M'Gregors concealed not their coming. Loudly and fiercely their pipes flung their notes of warlike defiance on the gale, and, far and wide, mountain, cliff, and glen, echoed to the martial strains. The foes met; and long and desperate was the conflict which ensued. No warriors of that age could withstand the hurricane onset of the bold M`Gregors, the tide of battle flowed full in their favour, while Black John raving through the field like a chafed lion, shouted in a voice of thunder, heard far above the clash, groans, and yells of the unyielding combatants, for the murderer of his son. None defied him--to none was afforded time, for he cut down in his headlong rage every foeman he encountered; until but few remained on whom he could wreak his vengeance, or exercise his great strength. Gazing round the field, he at length spied an old man seated on a fern bank, while his hands grasped the bloody stump of his leg which had been stricken off. He beckoned the grim chief to come nearer, and Black John rushed forward, brandishing his bloody sword, and still crying in a voice which startled the yet remaining birds from the mountain cliffs, "Where was his son's murderer?"

"Shake the leg out of that brogue," said the old man, speaking with difficulty, and squeezing his bloody stump with both hands in all the energy of pain. "Go, bring me a drink of water free yon burn, and I'll show you Calum Dhu, for he is yet in the field, and lives: rin, for my heart burns and faints."

The M'Gregor, without uttering a word, shook the leg out of the brogue, and hastened to do his foeman's bidding. But whilst he stooped to dip in the blood-stained brogue, "Mac Alp--hooch!" faintly broke from his lips, and he splashed lifeless into the stream, which in a moment ran thick with his blood.

"Ha! " cried Calum Dhu, for it was he again, "Clap your hand behin! that's the last arrow shot by the arm which ne'er sent those which came out where they went in."